Mental health at work is one of those topics: the ones that get swept under the carpet, hushed around the water cooler, and left unspoken in the boardroom. It's almost taboo in many workplaces, completely ignored in others, and treated superficially way too often.
If you are an employer, a manager, a team lead, a founder, or a Human Resources pro, it's high time you started taking mental health at work more seriously. And there's a long list of reasons why you should do that, from better employee engagement to normalizing discussing mental health and helping people live better, more balanced, and more fulfilling lives.
We had a chat with some entrepreneurs, managers, and HRs to see what they think of mental health at work, how they treat it, and how others can learn from their examples. Read on to find out more.
“There's a feedback loop between the personal and the professional, especially when it comes to mental health. When we feel great in our personal lives, it influences how we feel at work. When we feel awful at work, it influences how we feel at home. The pandemic has shown us that mental health must be spoken about in the workplace rather than pushed off to the side. The best way to do so is to create a company culture of psychological safety where everyone feels like it's okay to bring up their mental health without being stigmatized or ostracized.”
– Shirani M. Pathak, Former Psychotherapist & Workplace Belonging Specialist
Defining Mental Health at Work
Mental health at work is a topic that can be difficult to define because it's different for everyone. According to Think Mental Health ,"Mental health is a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community."
How we discuss mental health at work should go beyond making people feel good at work with nice coffee, lounge areas, and well-designed workspaces, though -- and here's where most organizations don't do enough. Mental health at work is about more than just the physical environment, but about the psychological safe space too.
“Remember that ALL of your employees, at one time or another, will deal with mental health concerns. There's this belief that mental health problems are most problematic for people with bipolar disorder or anxiety, and when we hear work and mental health, we think of people who have long-term struggles with those issues. That's a very incomplete understanding of workplace mental health issues, however. Over an entire career, most people will have a mental health concern that affects their performance, and it can be anything from the death of a parent or loved one, to a divorce or bankruptcy, to a long-term illness, to a dozen other things. For founders and managers, it's important to understand that mental health is restricted to certain people—all of your employees will at some time or another have a mental health concern.”
– Michael Morris, Editorial Director at Rough and Tumble Gentleman
The Employee Mental Health Experience
If you think mental health at work is simply not work-appropriate, you're in the wrong. In fact, there are many reasons employees should feel comfortable discussing their mental health at work.
Mental health is a topic that's slowly but surely becoming less taboo, with more and more people openly talking about their experiences with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. And that's a good thing: according to the World Health Organization, 1 in 4 people globally will be affected by mental illness at some point in their lives. Moreover, mental health causes 1 in 5 years lived with disability.
And if you think it's just a passing thing, think again: according to a study run by WHO in 2017, there had been a 13% increase in mental health conditions over the preceding decade. With COVID-19 affecting so many lives, it is very likely that number has changed now.
But despite the fact that mental health is so common, there's still a lot of stigma around it. Multiple studies point to a very disheartening fact: people suffering from mental health issues are discriminated against. Which, in turn, makes it harder for them to talk about their problems -- and even harder to heal.
It's like an endless cycle perpetuated by antiquated beliefs, social norms, and, in some cases, reluctance to acknowledge the problem.
Fortunately, this is slowly starting to change. In recent years, more and more people have been talking about their experiences with mental health issues. This has helped break the stigma and make it easier for others to speak up as well.
And while there's still a lot of work to be done in this area, it's important for employers to create an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their mental health. Doing this helps:
- Normalize the discussion about mental health
- Make it easier for employees to seek help
- Encourage employees to live healthier and more balanced lives.
- Improves employee retainment, engagement, and productivity
The Company’s Role in Employee Mental Health
It wasn't that long ago that organizations didn't believe it was their place to get involved in their employee's mental health. The thinking was that it was a personal issue and that employees should deal with it on their own time.
This is no longer the case. As we've mentioned before, mental health is a real problem that affects a large portion of the population -- which means it's also something that can affect your workplace.
And while the company's role in employee mental health is not the same as that of a therapist (or close friend), it is important to acknowledge what companies can do to help their teams in this regard:
Provide Mental Health Resources
The first step is to provide employees with resources and information about mental health. This can be done in a number of ways, such as:
- Including mental health content in the employee handbook or onboarding materials.
- Sending regular emails with mental health tips, articles, or resources.
- Giving employees access to professional training in the mental health area
“Reduce stigma and increase access to mental health resources by using communication. *Through monthly newsletters, raise mental health awareness in your organization regularly. Ensure that your executives bring up emotional well-being whenever they discuss recruiting talents and create an inclusive culture that encourages employees to bring their best selves
to work. Provide workshops to employees to help them understand better mental health and resilience and make your organization a safe space for everyone battling mental health problems.
– Kirill Sajaev, Founder of AUQ
Offer Mental Health Benefits
The second step is to offer employees benefits that can help them deal with mental health issues. This could include:
- Health insurance that covers mental health services
- Employee assistance programs
- Mental health days
- Flexible work schedules
“Allow disconnection. Disconnecting from work for short periods of time is the only proof-driven method to avoid burnout. Thanks to communication apps like Slack, it’s easier than ever to get in touch with co-workers, even when they’re on vacation. This leads to employees feeling an obligation to respond, no matter the situation. For mental health to improve at work, it’s essential that you enforce mandated disconnection from work.”
– Dan Kroytor, Founder of TailoredPay
Create a Supportive Work Environment
The third step is to create a work environment that is supportive of employees' mental health. This includes:
- Encouraging open communication about mental health
- Creating a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and discrimination
- Offering training on how to deal with mental health issues
“It sounds cliche, but one of the best tools you have is training. For people to be open with you, they have to know the people they are speaking to are understanding, open, and can most importantly hold space without judgment. You are not expecting every manager to be a therapist, but offering good quality training will be important, and something you should celebrate and highlight to each team member, so they are aware that people have had this training. This is also something that could expand to being offered to a certain number of people annually, so there are more people who can take on responsibility and be able to support the mental health needs of the team.
– Alex Mastin, Founder & CEO of Home Grounds
What Employers Need to Provide for Good Mental Health at Work
Mental health in a workplace doesn't "just happen" if you toss a training session and a few documents into your team members' (probably already very busy) schedule. Some of the essential elements of supporting mental health at work include:
Mental health should not be a taboo topic. It should be something that we can openly discuss without judgment. As employers, we have a responsibility to create an environment where employees feel comfortable talking about their mental health. Only then can we hope to break the stigma and encourage employees to seek help when they need it.
Employee Assistance Programs (EAP)
An employee assistance program (EAP) is a confidential counseling service that helps employees deal with personal and work-related problems. EAPs can provide individual counseling, referral services, and support groups. Many also offer online resources.
More Sustainable Ways of Working
The traditional 9-5 work day is no longer realistic or sustainable, particularly in a world where technology enables many other hybrid work options. In order to support employees' mental health, we need to be flexible with how and when work gets done. This could include:
- Allowing employees to take mental health days
- Offering flexible work hours or remote working options
- Encouraging employees to take vacation days
The more connected and "at home" people feel in the workplace (physically and psychologically), the more likely it is they'll be engaged and productive employees. A few ways to encourage a deeper connection at work include:
- Promoting social activities outside of work
- Encouraging employees to get to know each other on a personal level
- Making sure everyone feels like they're part of the team
“Aside from financial security and stability, work provides a sense of identity and belonging in the world. For some people, work offers an important sense of purpose, validation, and self-respect. But without effective support, mental disorders and other mental health conditions can affect a person's confidence and iidentity at work, capacity to work productively, absences, and the ease with which to retain or gain work. This means that it is just as important for us to create a supportive working environment for people with mental health problems as it is for us to design workplaces that fit the needs of our staff.”
– Layla Acharya, Owner of EdWize
Employees look to their leaders for guidance and support, so it's important that managers and executives are well-equipped to deal with mental health issues in the workplace. A few ways to do this include:
- Offering training on how to deal with mental health issues
- Encouraging employees to come to you with any concerns they may have
- Creating an action plan for addressing mental health issues in the workplace
“One way my firm addresses mental health is by prioritizing the creation of authentic relationships. Employees who have a good friend and managers they can trust with work, and personal issues are several times more likely to be engaged. This level of trust, engagement, and communication, impacts an employee’s mental wellbeing.”
– Natalia Morozova, Managing Partner at CohenTuckerLaw
The discussion of mental health in the workplace might be a difficult one, but it’s no longer taboo. In order to create a healthy workplace environment, it's essential that employers provide resources, benefits, and support for employees dealing with mental health issues. Only then can we hope to break the stigma and encourage employees to seek help when they need it.
Times, they are a' changin' -- and at least when it comes to mental health in the workplace, they might be a' changin' for the better.